Over the last few years we have finally begun to realize the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic. Information campaigns like Intermountain’s “Use Only as Directed” program, special reports on TV and others have effectively changed the culture and understanding around opioids.
We know the devastating impact it has had on Utah, where six Utahns die every week as a result of opioid overdose. We know that with each additional week a patient uses an opioid-based treatment, the risk for addiction or nonfatal overdose increases by 20 percent. And we know that the problem is not going away or slowing down.
With this increased attention we have also realized that there is still far too much we don’t know. One area of particular interest to me is opioid abuse among pregnant women.
I want to tell you about one of my constituents here in Utah. We’ll call her June.
Like so many, June was prescribed an opioid-based treatment for a health condition. And like so many, she became addicted to her prescription. June’s addiction controlled her life, even after she became pregnant. She didn’t know how to get help and even more tragically, she didn’t know she could be helped. So, the cycle of abuse continued.
As a result of her opioid use, June was unable to carry her baby to term and delivered early. Her baby tested positive for opioid exposure and experienced painful withdrawal symptoms, which required intensive care and an expensive hospital stay.
The cycle repeated itself during June’s second pregnancy.
June’s story is not unique. Across the country we hear stories of opioid overdose, drug use during pregnancy and grieving families who struggle not knowing how to help their loved ones.
From 2004 to 2014, the rate of infants diagnosed with opioid withdrawal symptoms increased 433 percent. Today, an infant is born every 15 minutes with withdrawal symptoms as a result of exposure to opioids before birth.
The statistics are even more troubling in Utah, which leads the nation in prescribing opioids to pregnant women. For some populations in the state, nearly twice as many pregnant women are prescribed opioids as the national average.
We need to find out why.
What we do know are the risks. Opioid use during pregnancy can have dramatic consequences for both a mother and a baby. Neonatal abstinence syndrome presents as the baby goes through withdrawal — constant screaming, shaking, vomiting and difficulty sleeping and eating. As with June’s family, this condition often requires long and expensive hospitalizations. For Medicaid-covered babies, the health care costs associated with caring for this syndrome was over $460 million in 2014 alone.
Health care experts, providers and patients agree: There’s simply far too much we don’t know about why pregnant women are being prescribed opioids and what possible alternatives might provide better health outcomes for mothers and their newborn children.
Last month I introduced the POPPY Study Act to help us find answers. My bill calls for increased research into the current opioid prescribing practices during pregnancy, more data on prescription opioid misuse during pregnancy and recommendations to reduce opioid prescriptions and misuse during pregnancy.
The POPPY Study Act encourages non-opiate pain management therapies, including anything from innovative medical technologies, non-opiate medications, physical therapy or other practices that are safe and effective during pregnancy.
We can defeat this opioid crisis. It will not be easy, and there is no single perfect solution. But there are steps we can take to help families, protect children and save lives.
And my bill will help.